Just minutes before Sir Michael Fallon entered Downing Street yesterday for his fateful chat with the Prime Minister, fellow veteran Tory MP Gary Streeter tweeted his verdict on the May Government: “Feels increasingly like 92-97 parl: no majority, no money, ripping ourselves apart over EU. That lasted 5 years. Oh dear.” And after the Defence Secretary’s resignation over sexual impropriety last night, Streeter could well have added this to his litany of 1990s retro-gloom: ‘Back To Basics is Back’.
For Theresa May, the immediate priority is to appoint a new head of the MoD (she herself had to take on the Defence Secretary’s formal duties overnight, which says everything). But her bigger problem is the wider stench of decay that now hangs around her administration, a mere 15 months into her premiership. Will Damian Green, another absolutely key, loyal ally, be next to quit? His departure would in many ways be an even bigger blow than May losing her joint chiefs off staff after the snap election disaster. For some reason, the Cabinet Office refuses to say whether Sue Gray – the wonderfully titled Director General of Propriety and Ethics - is investigating Green, even though I’m told she is investigating Mark Garnier.
As for Fallon, the once-reliable former ‘Minister for the Today programme’ was obviously absent from that show this morning. I’ve written a mini-analysis of his rise-and-fall career (the chess-loving, wine-quaffing veteran has had several comebacks) HERE. I’m told he simply couldn’t guarantee fresh stories would emerge about his flirtatious conduct over the years. More serious allegations swirl about him however, and the Mail claims Chief Whip Gavin Williamson advised the PM to sack him. Williamson, who is seen by some colleagues as incredibly ambitious for further promotion (he expected a big new job if May’s election gamble had succeeded), is a key figure to the next steps.
Two key factors matter: whether allegations are part of a pattern of behaviour, and Andrea Leadsom’s new sexual misconduct test (warning of serious consequences for conduct that makes women and men feel ‘uncomfortable’). One former minister linked to recent claims tells me there is ‘a big difference between unfaithful conduct and improper conduct’ such as unconsensual, sexualised behaviour. Still, there is a danger for May that Tory backbenchers mutter this is all about ‘political correctness’, a danger not helped by Fallon’s line that ‘what was acceptable 10, 15 years ago is not now’. Many think it wasn’t acceptable then either. Labour MPs in particular remember how Fallon attacked Ed Miliband’s patriotism, as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s. Although many Tories are sad to see him go, the Opposition isn’t.
For May, her allies believe that the fact that she is a female PM and unimpeachable herself on sexual propriety matters is a big strength right now. Ruth Davidson told the Spectator awards last night that “the house-clearing” “is going to be done – and needs to happen – in the next few weeks months and years ahead”. She added there May needed some “pretty big shovels for the Augean stable.” And on the Today prog, she added: “the dam has broken on this now…the boys’ own locker room culture has prevailed and it’s all a bit of a laugh, has got to stop”.
She may be right that we have seen a watershed on sexual harassment in politics. But the cycle of growth and decay that dominates Westminster is hard to defy. The old Westminster maxim is that Labour scandals are always about money and Tory ones always about sex. It was under a Labour government that the expenses saga broke in the 2000s, and under the Conservatives that ‘back to basics’ surfaced in the 1990s. With Brexit looming, May has enough money worries on her plate, but does she have the mettle to put the public interest ahead of party interest and root out the sex pests? That really would be a legacy worth having.
Just a few hours before Fallon quit, May had confirmed at PMQs that she would next week (Monday it seems) meet Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders to discuss the creation of new complaints systems to deliver justice for victims of harassment and bullying in Parliament. Given that backdrop, the PM must be tempted to send out a strong signal of solidarity to women in politics by appointing Britain’s first ever female Defence Secretary.
Penny Mordaunt, a former armed forces minister, would fit the bill perfectly. Young, non-public school, media-savvy and with a passion for defence issues (she’s a Royal Naval Reservist, represents Portsmouth and is the daughter of a Para), she also has the key qualification of being a Minister of State, the rung below Cabinet. Tobias Ellwood may be deemed too junior, and Tom Tugendhat (though bound to get preferment at some stage) isn’t even a minister. Other names in the frame are all trusted Ministers of State: Brandon Lewis, Sir Alan Duncan and Ben Wallace. No.10 sources suggest there’ll be no wider Cabinet reshuffle.
Yet more evidence of the appalling harassment culture at Westminster emerged yesterday, not least via Pippa Crerar’s report about an MP grabbing the crotch of his assistant, claims that a woman’s drink was spiked with a date rape drug and a former intern telling the BBC an MP assaulted him outside a Commons bar. Women Lobby reporters long complained about a creepy senior Lib Dem who asked them to wear knee boots to lunches, and claims that he was a ‘look but don’t touch’ lech were hardly reassuring. Former Guardian political editor Michael White proved his Jurassic reputation on equality yesterday, telling Radio 4 that female political journalists were the real ‘predators’. Labour is far from immune, and our Kate Forrester reveals the ‘LabourToo’ campaign will report its findings to the party next month.
The next steps on tackling this problem are crucial. Dave Penman, general secretary of the First Division Association of senior civil servants, has written an excoriating blog for HuffPost UK, in which he says MPs and political parties have to be stripped of their role in investigating “the culture of abuse”. The FDA represents many Parliamentary staff and Penman warns May’s tiny majority means the ‘electoral maths’ make it impossible for MPs to be left in charge of such cases. Unite’s Parliamentary branch today has an emergency meeting too, the Birmingham Mail reports. And let’s not forget the wider picture. Maria Miller today has a Commons backbench debate on sexual harassment and violence in schools. If our own MPs can’t set the right example, how can we get the message across to pupils?
Laura Kuenssberg’s tweet about Michael Fallon quitting came at 7.28pm. But that managed to bury the bad news that had broken just 27 minutes earlier, as the Commons passed the motion demanding publication of secret Brexit papers. With the ‘usual channels’ between Government and Opposition whips having all but broken down, Labour’s decision to resort to Parliamentary guerilla tactics paid off and it declared ‘a victory for Parliament and democracy’.
The use of the antique procedural device of ‘an Humble Address to Her Majesty’ means this is a ‘binding’ decision, Labour claims. And despite earlier prevarication by his deputy, Speaker Bercow flexed his muscles last night within minutes of the motion being passed, warning ministers that previous similar motions had been binding. Moreover, he said that he wouldn’t tolerate Andrea Leadsom’s cunning wheeze of last week, when she declared ministers would ‘respond’ to any successful Opposition motions within 12 weeks. Much swifter action is needed, the Speaker signalled.
Commons Leader Leadsom will today be under pressure at Business Questions to tell us how, or at least when, the Government will comply with the will of the House. Government sources suggested to me during the debate that a ‘redacted’ version of the Brexit assessment papers could be published with sensitive bits blanked out. Indeed, many Tories thought Keir Starmer had blundered by hinting something similar early in the debate. Yet Government retreat was guaranteed by the lethal combination of Tory rebels like Anna Soubry (she warned the papers “might actually prick this golden bubble, this balloon of the promised land of Brexit”) and even Jacob Rees-Mogg (who sits on the Brexit Committee that will get the papers and may want to decide on the redactions itself).
Lots of MPs talked yesterday as if there were 58 different papers floating around. But that’s to misunderstand the Brexit department’s announcement on Monday that its economic assessments covered 58 individual industry sectors. I’m told the impact study is actually one huge arch-lever file, more than 5,000 pages long. Ministers had hoped for a redaction compromise, but faced with calls to hand the whole thing unamended to MPs, they may dig in on the constitutional argument, claiming the motion was not ‘binding’. Let’s see about that. One thing was confirmed beyond doubt yesterday: the Government will indeed not oppose Opposition Day motions (it didn’t on Armed Forces as well as the Brexit papers). Whether it will now ‘ignore’ them is the next procedural, if not linguistic and philosophical, battleground.
Watch this video of a Thai goalkeeper’s reaction to his opponent hitting the crossbar in a penalty shootout. It’s an invaluable lesson in not celebrating too early – not a bad reality check for all our politicians on a day like today.
Many in the City are expecting the Bank of England to announce its first interest rates rise in a decade. Of course, City expectations are hardly always right (GDP went up, not down last week) and it may be that Mark Carney holds off for another month if the ‘doves’ on the Monetary Policy Committee outweigh the ‘hawks’. Carney himself has blown hot and cold on the topic, hardly giving the markets much confidence. We have a handy guide on four things to watch for ahead of the noon decision.
As I’ve said before, many in Government have been dreading this moment as even a tiny increase could have a real impact on many households already squeezed (our Owen Bennett had debt charities warning about it this week). But it’s the wider political shock of Black Wednesday and big rate hikes that lives in the folk memory of both Tory and Labour old hands, who believe from that day on Tony Blair was secured election victory five years later.
The FT, which says a rise today would be ‘jumping the gun’, warns that Carney should signal any increase is not the start of a series of hikes. The US Fed has been gradually rising rates (Trump announces his nominee to replace Janet Yellen today) but over here people like former Monetary Policy Committee member Danny Blanchflower warn that inflation really isn’t a real threat. Blanchflower told the BBC that most prices rises were due to the Brexit referendum shock plunging the pound downwards. He claimed that sterling effect would ‘drop out’ of the system slowly. Others are not that sure.
When you ask Theresa May’s allies why she’s still in post despite her dreadful snap election decision, they all say she wants to deliver not just a smooth Brexit but also deliver on her promises to combat the ‘burning injustices’ in Britain. Yet when it comes to the ‘just about managing’ classes, the working poor, there’s fresh evidence today that things will get much worse.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) normally upsets ministers with post-Budget analyses of ‘black holes’ in the finances. Its report today looks instead at poverty and forecasts that child poverty will soar to a record 5.2 million over the next five years as government welfare cuts bite deepest on households with young families. Even on the Tories’ new measure of ‘absolute’ rather than ‘relative’ child poverty, the figures will jump by 400,000.
The increase of more than a million youngsters living below the breadline (in relative terms) will more than reverse all the progress made over the past 20 years. Universal Credit cuts and less generous tax credits are cited but the big factor is George Osborne’s decision to freeze benefits. Unless May does something truly radical and indexes benefits (public sector workers may get an above-inflation rise, but welfare claimants won’t), her ‘Nasty Party’ characterisation really could return to haunt her.